Benjamin Li
Nov 27, 2013

Art-house cinemas: A hot spot for brands?

HONG KONG - If you think art-house cinemas are purely for nerdy film buffs watching surrealist French movies, you may need to adjust your attitude. Gary Mak (麥聖希), MD of Broadway Cinematheque in Hong Kong and MOMA Beijing, argues that such theatres provide opportunities to reach a young and culturally sophisticated audience.

Mak: Looking for innovative ideas
Mak: Looking for innovative ideas

In an interview with Campaign Asia-Pacific at the Broadway Cinematheque in Hong Kong's Yau Ma Tei district last Friday, Mak elaborated on why he believes cinemas like his can be effective partners—and shared several examples of work he has done with brands.

“Films are related to wide-ranging fields, from fashion, music, travel, to food and beverage, and there are so many possibilities for brands to do crossover marketing,” he said.

Mak, a comparative literature graduate from the University of Hong Kong, started off as a film journalist in local film magazines and newspapers in the early part of his career. He then spent a year in London to read his MA at University of London Birkbeck College, where he was the only non-native English speaking student from Asia. He worked for a time with the British Film Institute.

Mak joined Broadway Cinematheque, one of the few art-house cinemas in Hong Kong, in 1999, initially as an assistant director. The cinema is a subsidiary of EDKO Films, which owns a wide range of companies including Broadway cinema chains in Hong Kong and China as well as distribution companies and TV channels.

Mak's primary responsibility is on the software side of the cinema, overseeing strategy, development and film programming for the two cinemas in Hong Kong and Beijing. "I also need to be involved in the marketing of the cinemas," he said. "But we don’t have a lot of marketing dollars for promoting ourselves. We ride on different film programmes.”

Broadway Cinematheque has been around for 17 years. Tell us about your audience profile.

We now have a membership database of 18,000 film buffs who come to our cinema more than once a week. Of those, 55 per cent are female and 45 per cent are male, from university students to fresh graduates aged from 20 to 35 years old.

Together with our Broadway Circuit, we have an additional 640,000 [members].

We are the only the cinema chain that caters to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) population in both our cinema and TV channel in Hong Kong. But as Yau Ma Tei is an older neighbourhood, we also cater to older people.

Can you share some examples of collaborations you have done with brands in the past?

Two years ago, after our renovation, we held a re-launch party with Belgian beer brand Stella Artois. We transformed the whole cinema into a retro cinema with vintage car display, an exhibition of our cinema history, models in period costumes, a tap-dancing performance and the premiere  screening of “The Artist”—a black-and-white French silent film about the coming of sound in cinema.

We also worked with Bauhaus, a local fashion and jeans brand [which also own brands like Tough, Salad, and Superdry] in our Asian Film Festival. As they had a brand campaign called 'No pain, no gain', we ran a marathon screening of five cult films from midnight till the next morning. The films, from the genre of action, violent and sexy, appealed to their target audience of people who are young, energetic, creative and uncompromising.

We gave a certificate to those who finished watching the five films, and the brand also gave them discount coupons and other goodies.

Another example was with multi-brand fashion house I.T., where we collaborated with a programme titled 'Fashion & Film'. We curated a number of documentaries about fashion icons or films featuring fashion, like The Fifth Element [costume design by Jean-Paul Gaultier], Marie Antoinette and Takashi Kitano’s Dolls. I.T. did a fashion catwalk show in our auditorium, which was a breakthrough in Hong Kong.

We are also working with Agnes b to present a number of French films on our TV channel Movie Movie. We just celebrated the first anniversary of our Movie Movie channel on Now TV this summer, with a slogan of 'See the world', as we showed films from over 60 different countries.

We have decorated our cinema as if in a plane, with performers dressing up as air stewards. That would be a perfect marketing opportunity for airlines or luggage and other travel-related brands.

We need more creative, innovative ideas to do some happening events with our non-mainstream audience database, and I know other brands are looking for the same stuff as well.

Do you promote yourself aggressively as an art-house cinema?

As you can imagine, doing art and culture, you do not want to present yourself very aggressively and commercially.

We do not do above-the-line advertising, as it is too expensive. We promote ourselves as film buffs and are targeting film buffs, and we want to do things in a more artistic way, instead of just asking artists to do film premieres.

We promote film culture and fostering the appreciation of art-house cinema among a young audience; that is our key vision.

With our Kubrick Café we want to create a creative vibe for people to hang out. And we do a lot of cultural events like indie band shows, poem readings, improvisational theatre performances, and Q&A discussions with film directors. We also do cross-promotions with other local performance arts organisations.

We do not like very aggressively to outreach to people, we prefer to do our own stuff, if other brands notice what we are doing, they will approach us.

As you have watched a lot of films, what advice would you give to brands when they are doing product placement in films?

It has to be very very careful. Like in China, for example, Shu Qi’s film If You Are the One (非誠勿擾), although it was a box office success, I would not appreciate it, as there were a lot of in-your-face product placements by international and local brands from watches to insurance companies. If you see them in the film again and again, it is overtly repulsive and would generate a very negative image to your brands.

My advice to brands is that they should do their product placements in films more subtly. They should be immersed with the story line with a reason. You are not just taking over every possibility to display your products. It is not about placement, it is more about merging with the story.

Tell us more about your Movie Movie channel on Now TV? What opportunities are there for advertisers?

Similar to the music industry, people download music, they do not buy CDs so much nowadays. We are offering another platform and convenience for busy people to choose and watch movies, instead of limiting them to seeing films only on the big screen.

For marketers, we are offering an all-round marketing opportunity from cinema theatre, TV channel, our print magazine, audience database, and our close ties with celebrities and film directors and other cultural organisations.

How does your audience in Beijing differ from that in Hong Kong?

Audiences in Beijing are very aggressive, as they were deprived the opportunity to see those art-house films in the past.

As the market is open now, and cinemas are showing films at the same time as in the rest of the world, they flock to the cinema as soon as possible. That explains the crazy record-breaking box-office in China all the time.

In China, we just use Weibo and WeChat, which can easily attract lots of people’s interest to our new screenings. They are so much more eager to know anything about movies, especially in our Q&A sessions with film directors. As the organiser, I am very moved by this kind of passion.

Whereas in Hong Kong, it is quite the opposite. People are spoiled with choice for entertainment, so we need to do a lot more creative marketing to stand out and grab their attention.

Apart from seeing films, what do you do to get your creative juices flowing?

I am trained as a visual person, so I like going to visual exhibitions, dance performances, and I like music concerts like the upcoming Clockenflap.

If you could choose, which film role would you like to play?

I love European cinema, and learned a lot from those old masters’ movies. And I also like new movies like Gravity. If I were to play a role in any film, it would be Tony Leung Chiu-Wai's role in Wong Kar-Wai’s film Days of Being Wild (阿飛正傳). It was only the last ending scene, where he looked in the mirror and combed his hair. One shot, that was it. 

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